Galileo Museum


I find that after spending more than a day or two in a European city I typically need an antidote to churches because, despite me to spirituality being like birds to the solid inner core of Earth, I tend to overdose on churches there because they are often the most numerous and the most dominant and grandiose of tourist attractions in old European cities. Somewhat ironically, the Galileo Museum in Florence offers that antidote.

I say “somewhat ironically” because, despite being correctly thought of as a Renaissance man of science, Galileo was also a devout Catholic. His oldest daughter, Victoria, was a cloistered nun who took the name “sour Maria Celeste” upon taking her vows. (Never mind that, in the parlance of the day, Victoria was an “illegitimate” child.) Galileo and sour Maria Celeste, nee Victoria, were close and corresponded frequently. Many of those letters survived their lives and are available to historians. In fact, if you’re interested in learning more about Galileo Galilei, I highly recommend reading Galileo’s Daughter, by Dava Sobel, a book that uses some of those letters to drive forward the narrative of a biography of Galileo.

Given that Galileo was a staunch Catholic and sired a nun, why do I consider his namesake museum to be an antidote to churches? Here’s what I had read in Galileo’s Daughter, years before the visit to Florence that resulted in my current blog post: After having been told by the Vatican that he couldn’t publicly espouse the Copernican theory of a sun-centered rather than an earth-centered solar system (or universe in the Copernican vs Church view), at around the age of 60 and over the course of about six years, Galileo wrote the book Dialogue. It took the form of a play with three principal characters. One character, Salviati, argued in favour of the then controversial Copernican view. The other two characters espoused the Church’s Earth-centric view of the universe.

Thus, in Dialogue, it was two against one in favour of the Catholic Church. True, Salviati had the more convincing arguments, because, oh, I don’t know, maybe because his was the more accurate view, but Galileo did not definitively declare either theory to be true in Dialogue. Nevertheless, in 1632—hardly an age of what we would now consider to be modern transportation—upon hearing about Dialogue, the Pope ordered Galileo to make the arduous journey from Florence to Rome to appear before the Inquisition to explain himself. This was despite his advanced age, despite him being quite ill and despite Florence being plagued by The Plague at the time. Upon receiving an appeal from Galileo, the only concessions that the Pope granted in light of Galileo’s condition and the conditions of the time were that he could travel comfortably and take his time getting to Rome, but Galileo’s request to rescind the order to go to Rome was refused. (At another time, the Church also chastised Galileo for backing the mathematical concept of infinite smallness—a concept that is essential for many facets of modern mathematics—but that’s another story that I more recently read about in another book.)

Aparatus to demonstrate the parabolic trajectory of projectiles
Aparatus to demonstrate the parabolic trajectory of projectiles

In other words, Galileo was persecuted by the Inquisition for having the audacity to state that maybe—just maybe—Copernicus was right about Earth revolving around the sun rather than the other way around. Keep in mind, it wasn’t even Galileo’s idea. It was Copernicus’ theory. And Galileo didn’t insist that it was unquestionably true. He just suggested that there was strong evidence to support Copernicus’ theory. Thus, Galileo was persecuted by the Church for thinking that the truth might possibly be true.

Therefore, for me, paying homage to Galileo is my way of attesting that, yes, those old churches are beautiful and frequently magnificent due to their age, size and grandeur, but let’s get real.

But enough about history. On to the Galileo Museum. Well, OK, and a little history about the museum.

The exhibits at the museum are the result of five centuries—yes, that’s right, 500 or so years—of collecting scientific instruments. The collection was started by the Medici family during the Renaissance, beginning in the early 1500s. The Medici were the preeminent oligarchs and cultural benefactors of the Italian Renaissance. The collection was continued in the 1700s by the Lorraine family, which, at the time, ruled the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.

At one time, some of the Medici collection of scientific instruments was displayed in the Uffizi Gallery next to great works of art. A contiguous mix of art and science; I’m not at all a student of such things, but I think that’s pretty much the definition of the spirit of the Renaissance.

Galileo's finger, thumb and tooth
Galileo’s finger, thumb and tooth

Despite the museum’s name, the exhibits are not dedicated solely to Galileo. There are old scientific instruments from a range of years outside of those of Galileo. However, the collection does include some instruments that were used by Galileo—not just replicas of such pieces or instruments of that vintage used by others, but Galileo’s own scientific instruments, ones he held in his own hands. How cool is that? Exceptionally cool, if you ask me. (You didn’t ask me, but I asked and answered it anyway.)

The artifacts on display vary considerably. There are time pieces, surveying equipment, navigation equipment, thermometers, barometers, hydrometers, microscopes, telescopes, other astronomy equipment, early electrical machines, scales  … and more. Yes, more.

Oh, yeah. How could I forget? There were a few things that don’t quite fit under the category of “scientific instruments.” The museum displays a tooth and the index finger and the thumb of the right hand of Galileo, which were encased in glass jars. Yeah, really. A tad macabre, I’d say, but it was awe-inspiring to find myself in such close proximity to something that was once a living part of Galileo.

Been there? Done that? Do tell.